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Chronicling COVID-19 for future researchers

The Queen’s Archives is compiling digital materials that document the pandemic’s impact on the university and the community.

Photo of the Queen's Archives
The Queen's Archives is using Archive-It to make an online record of COVID-19 that is open to anyone.

Stretching back 179 years, Queen’s past has been marked by the effects of Canadian Confederation, two world wars, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and many other historical events. But the current novel coronavirus pandemic is now creating a chapter unlike any other in its history.

That’s why the Queen’s University Archives is making sure that this moment is preserved for future generations. Working with area partners, the Archives is capturing digital records that tell the story of how COVID-19 has affected both the university and the broader Kingston area.

“In the future, people are going to want to know how the pandemic changed life in this region, and the only way they’ll be able to find out is if there is an archive they can turn to. By capturing as much information as we can, we’re going to make it possible to study how some of the larger institutions in the area responded to the virus and how the media covered what happened here,” says Jeremy Heil, Digital and Private Records Archivist at Queen’s.

Deciding what to record

Shortly after Queen’s transitioned to remote teaching and working arrangements, the Archives moved quickly to start keeping a record of this unprecedented time. They decided to focus their efforts first on collecting records of materials such as municipal decisions, public health information, and communications from the university. These materials are what future researchers would be able to use to reconstruct a timeline of how the early stages of the pandemic unfolded at Queen’s and in the region.

As part of their work, the Queen’s University Archives reached out to area partners to ensure that they would coordinate their efforts with the City of Kingston, Kingston Frontenac Public Library, KFL&A Public Health, and others. All these groups are now working together to make sure that they aren’t duplicating efforts and to ensure that all the most relevant material is documented. As part of the Queen's University Library, the Archives is also coordinating with other university library and archives members of the Canadian Web Archiving Coalition that are documenting the impacts of COVID-19 in their locales.

Even though so much information has been coming out so quickly, the Archives is well positioned to capture it. In 2016, the Archives launched a program to make a web archive of the university’s online presence. And in 2018 they expanded this effort to make records of some significant government documents as well. When the time came to capture material related to COVID-19, the Archives was able to build off of this work and start collecting material quickly.

Archiving websites

For its ongoing digital archiving projects, Queen’s uses Archive-It, an application created by the Internet Archive. With Archive-It, Queen’s can capture URLs at specific moments in time, keeping a record of websites and pages for posterity.

The Queen’s Archives is frequently capturing the official websites for city and public health agencies, as we all as the university’s main website and its COVID-19 website. But it is also keeping records of many relevant stories that appear in local media outlets, especially The Kingston Whig-Standard. Queen’s Gazette stories in the Confronting COVID-19 series are also documented in the archive. Even some particularly significant Tweets from the university and local institutions will be captured.

The future of the COVID-19 archive

The future of the pandemic remains uncertain, but the Queen’s University Archives is committed to adding to their coronavirus archive for as long as necessary. When the pandemic eventually subsides, the Archives will also consider expanding the kinds of materials they include texts like personal accounts of the experience.

While they cannot know for certain who will use the archive in the future, they believe it will hold wide appeal. “The archive will be open to everyone, so a lot of people will be able to find creative uses for it. It will definitely be of interest to historians who want to understand how COVID-19 affected Queen’s and Kingston. But I also think future students and community members will want to use it to learn about this period. It’s our responsibility to collect this material as best as we can. It will be up to later generations to decide how they want to use it,” says Heil.

To learn more, visit the COVID-19 Archive, but please note that some materials are currently being processed and are not yet able to be viewed. For more information about the Queen’s Archives, visit their website.